Azerbaijan’s Wasted Potential

Shahin Bashirli gets help with his school work from Elnura Rzayeva. Photo by Arifa Kazimova.

Shahin Bashirli gets help with his school work from Elnura Rzayeva. Photo by Arifa Kazimova.

BAKU | Shahin Bashirli was born six years ago with a cleft lip and palate. Several delicate surgeries have left him with a speech defect and an aggressive temperament.

Still, Shahin is lucky: he is one of only 300 disabled children – out of 60,000 – in Azerbaijan to have access to mainstream schools. Shahin attends a primary school in Baku, along with three other disabled students.

Shahin says he likes school very much, but it’s not easy for him. Speech pathologist and teacher’s assistant Elnura Rzayeva said Shahin has learning difficulties. “I help him during all his classes, as he can’t keep up with his classmates.”

It’s a different story for 13-year-old Ulviyya, who has a mental disability and neurological problems. She attended mainstream schools as a child but fell behind her classmates. After the end of primary school three years ago, Ulviyya’s mother arranged to have her home-schooled. She also attends a private day-care center for disabled, school-age children.

Though not as integrated as Shahin, Ulviyya still fares better than the roughly 48,000 disabled youngsters, according to a former education minister, who are outside of education altogether in Azerbaijan.

One advocate for the disabled said the number of children in education is only about half of those who are capable of attending some kind of classes, whether in an institution or at home.

So many children are shut out of the system for several reasons. Some advocates say the government does not take a systematic approach to inclusive education. Others point out that many schools lack the facilities or trained staff to integrate disabled children. Still others say Azerbaijani society has not abandoned the Soviet-era tendency to stigmatize disabled people and keep them at home.

Most disabled children who are able to attend some type of schooling, whether mainstream school, boarding school, or a specialized institution, are already doing so, according to Nazir Guliev, director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights. The challenge is to reach those left at home, many of whom are not registered for any kind of tuition. Even for those who are, the quality of home-schooling is mixed, Guliev said. It can be merely pro forma, but sometimes it is substantive, as teachers who practice it receive relatively high salaries.

Aydin Khalilov, director of the Independent Life Development and Support Center in Baku, said, “In most cases, teachers and parents decide they don’t want to bother disabled children. They take pity on the disabled and think, ‘Why bother them if they won’t be able to receive higher education or get a job?’ I think awareness should be raised.”

Noting that Azerbaijan is a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which requires countries to provide inclusive education, Guliev said the government should either adopt a law to that effect or amend the existing omnibus education law.

After that, he said, “We should have corresponding staff, day-care centers for parents to take their children for several hours a day. School infrastructure should be improved to have ramps, toilets for these children. Even if there were such schools, a low-income parent has to get to them by taxi as the metro and buses don’t have the relevant infrastructure either.”

According to Khalilov, of the 16 mainstream schools where disabled children are taught, only one or two have the infrastructure to accommodate them.

In a statement, the Education Ministry said a seven-year plan for inclusive education is before the cabinet. Put together with input from UNICEF, it envisions the passage of new legislation, training teaching staff, adjusting schools’ infrastructure and curricula, establishing a database on disabled people, and other services.

Ulviyya’s mother, 52-year-old Mirvari, said she desperately needs more support in caring for her daughter, who is home most of the time. “I have to follow her everywhere, on walks, at home. If I leave her alone for any time, she tries to break something,” Mirvari said in a telephone interview, as Ulviyya’s voice in the background demanded that her mother hang up.

Which makes it difficult for Mirvari, a nurse, to hold down a job, which in turn makes it difficult for the family to make ends meet. She said Ulviyya receives 60 manats ($76) monthly from the government, and strained finances have caused the family to cut back her monthly visits to a neurologist to twice a year. Mirvari said they have also been forced to buy private prescriptions, at a cost of 120 manats each, for their daughter because the government-funded medications are no longer effective for Ulviyya.



Even if those problems evaporated tomorrow, however, children like Ulviyya and Shahin would still have to deal with unreconstructed attitudes toward disabled people.

“I have witnessed a disabled student entering a [school] hallway in a wheelchair and other parents warning their children to step aside,” Guliev said. “Inclusive education is meant to help children to accept disabled people as their friends. When an able-bodied child growing up in this environment becomes a decision-making official, he can understand a disadvantaged person’s problems better.”

2008 UNICEF study said most teachers believed Azerbaijani society, particularly parents, is not ready to accept inclusive education. “Some believe that there is a need to work with the society to break the stigma, perceptions about and understanding of children with disabilities and their needs before launching inclusive education reforms,” it said.

Among other recommendations, the study suggested specialized training for school staff and broader awareness-raising campaigns.

Mirvari said some parents let themselves be cowed into keeping their children at home – but not her.

“Why should I hide my disabled daughter from society? Parents themselves are guilty for not demanding education for such children,” she said.



One consequence of marginalizing so many disabled children is that they become an army of disabled adults, out of the work force and dependent on government and family. Some 20,000 of the country’s 440,000 disabled adults, less than 5 percent, are employed,according to Davud Rahimli, president of an umbrella group of disability rights organizations.

More than one-fifth of the country’s roughly 500,000 disabled people receive welfare, said Isgandar Mustafayev, a department head at the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection. Mustafayev said there are no figures for how many disabled people are able or unable to work, but in 2012 about one-third of the 600 who applied for jobs nationwide got hired.

Azerbaijan has a decent legal framework for hiring the disabled – they can be rejected on the grounds of disability only if unable to do the job or if the disability poses a potential threat to co-workers. But many employers are put off by the shorter hours disabled people are allowed to work and the longer vacation periods they receive by law. And about half of the country’s disabled adults lack the skills needed when they apply for work, Mustafayev said, adding that the ministry includes programs for disabled people in the country’s three skills-training centers.

In 1991, a department was set up at the State Oil Academy (then called the Azerbaijan Institute of Industry) to train disabled people to become engineers, programmers, and economists. Rahimli said, “They couldn’t get work and the department was closed after four or five years.”

Arifa Kazimova is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku.


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